Best Bikepacking Bike?

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Now depending on what corner of the internet you find yourself in you will read varying opinions on what bike is best for Bikepacking. There’s a good chance that if you’ve decided to give Bikepacking a go then you’re already a cyclist and you might be lucky enough to have a selection of bikes to choose from. However, you might be reading this knowing that you’ve just got the one bike tucked away in the garage. You know the one – the frame that has the thick layer of dust on and has bags and rags forever hanging over the handlebars. Either way, we have a starting point! We have a bike!

As with all types of bike there are many brands and models to choose from. We’ll save that for another post or this could get out of hand! I’m going to keep it fairly simple in this post and focus on the following types of bikes with a short list highlighting the pros and cons for each:

The Classic MTB Hardtail

A flat bar set up, front suspension, built for rugged off road rides, usually has a wide variety of gears for all sorts of terrain, and best of all (in my opinion) is the ability to run big chunky comfortable tyres providing loads of grip.

Now if you’re new to cycling and know you have a bike gathering dust in the shed then there’s a strong chance it’s going to look a bit like this. In some ways this is a classic bike look.

My Whyte 805 Hardtail (the yellow one above) works a treat as a Bikepacking bike. Huge 2.75 inch tyres for a comfortable ride, loads of grip when the surface gets loose or chunky, a 1 x chainring (simply means one chainring at the front), with an 11-42 10 speed cassette (the cassette being the gearing on your rear wheel – 10 cogs with the smallest cog being 11 and the largest cog a 42) to help you up the steep bits, and disc brakes for that sharp stopping power no matter the weather.

The thing to remember here is that this bike, when designed and built, was made to be thrown down mountain bike trails, over jumps, and across rocky fire roads. Not only that but when you live in Scotland like I do you can expect a good helping of terrible weather to join you on your ride. If that’s what it is built for then I’m fairly confident in saying that strapping a few bags to the frame and disappearing into the wild for a night or two is well within its capabilities!

If you’re after a nice, leisurely Bikepacking introduction then this type of bike is going to suit you perfectly. You’ve got the comfort, the grip, the gears. All you need is your bags attached and a destination.

Pros:

  • Classic flatbar, familiar bike feel. It’s most likely what you’ve know since you learned to ride a bike.
  • Lots of modern MTB’s have a 1 x gear set up providing plenty of range.
  • Robust due to its intended use.
  • Huge frame clearance for the chunky / grippy tyres.
  • Disc brakes for solid stopping power in all weather.
  • Front suspension (can be locked out for road riding) to soak up those lumpier routes.
  • Attaching a variety of bags is fairly easy due to the spacious frame.

Cons:

  • If you’re a road cyclist the upright position might not suit you for longer rides.
  • If your route has lots of road riding you’re going to be travelling at a slower pace due to those chunky tyres. Grip comes at a price!
  • The suspension is great but the suspension is weight. Again – comfort but at a price. If it doesn’t lock out it’s also more energy getting burned!
The MTB will get you most places at a steady pace.

The All Rounder / Gravel Bike

As you can see from the pictures this is my preferred bike for Bikepacking. Now this won’t be the same for everybody but for the kind of trips I’ve been on recently this bike has had everything I’ve needed. 

The road bike geometry, the ability to fit slightly wider tires due to the frame clearance, the drop handlebars, the internally rooted cables, disc brakes, and the overall road bike feel and look that I am used to. Plus all of my Bikepacking bags fit on here perfectly!

When I plan a trip I usually like to go quite far afield. It allows me to explore new places and hopefully pitch my tent where not many people have pitched a tent before. However, to do this requires me to do some road riding before I turn off onto some winding gravel track that takes me into the middle of nowhere. 

That road bike look and that road bike set up allows me to eat up the miles on the smooth surfaces even when loaded up with all of my gear. I can do tens of miles before deciding that I’m going to peel off into the wilderness. 

This is where this bike comes into its own. One minute I’m sailing along smooth tarmac and the next minute I’m on some rough, loose, rocky, energy sapping gravel road. This is where the journey usually begins properly. The sense of adventure kicks in because at this point there are no road signs, no local shops to refill your water bottles or get food, and usually no other people. This is why I do it. For this moment right here and it’s this bike that gets me there. 

All of my gear is snuggly packed onto the bike. The 2 x 11 Shimano 105 group set with an 11-32 cassette has just about enough gears to get me up some of the worst climbs on some of the worse surfaces. The disc brakes are going to give me everything I need when I’m descending down the other side of these climbs. The 35mm gravel tyres give me sufficient grip on the rough stuff but still allow me to travel at a decent speed on the smoother surfaces. We’ve got everything we need right here with this bike. It truly is an all rounder. 

So let’s sum this up with the pros and cons list:

Pros:

  • Classic road bike feel for those used to that kind of bike. 
  • Can eat the miles up on better surfaces.
  • Can handle all but the very worst terrains depending on your bike handling skills. 
  • Sturdy aluminium frame that a variety of bags attach to with ease. 
  • Plenty of gears available. Fitness level should be considered here.
  • Frame clearance allows for slightly wider tyres. 
  • Internal cables so you’re not pinching or rubbing any with use of bags etc.

Cons:

  • If you’re not used to drop bars it can be quite the learning curve for a maiden trip!
  • No suspension fitted so on very rough terrain you’ll be working hard and will get rattled around. 
  • That aluminium frame is sturdy but it’s not the lightest. If your a gram counter there’s lighter options. 
  • The 2 x 11 set up is ok but on steeper climbs or tricky terrain climbs a 1 x setup with a larger rear cassette will feel easier. 
  • The tyres can be slightly wider than road bike tyres but we’re not talking MTB size here. 
Road or gravel this bike has it covered at a quicker speed.

The Higher End / Road Bike

Would I love to jump on my Trek Emonda SLR7 and strap all my bags to it for a backpacking trip? Of course I would! However, the sensible part of me says no, and for good reason. 

Would the super light, stiff carbon frame be a joy to ride? Would the Ultegra Di2 gears feel and sound great as I trundled along? Of course it would! Would I forever beat myself up if I dropped it and cracked the frame? Would a tear fall from my eye if I broke my Di2? Yes and yes! 

This is why it’s not my Bikepacking bike. Now if money wasn’t an issue and I had a garage full of lovely top end road bikes then yes, I would probably assign one of them to be my Bikepacking bike. But unfortunately that’s not the case.

Depending on what you read, and who you trust, these carbon bikes are more than suitable for a Bikepacking trip. In fact some are marketed for gravel riding / Bikepacking specifically. It’s just not something I’m willing to risk. The benefits it might give me, in my mind, definitely don’t outweigh the risks involved with taking this beautiful bike on some weird and wonderful gravel trail in the middle of nowhere.

Plus there’s other things to consider with an electronic group set. What if I bash it off a rock? What if the bike accidentally falls over? Now I’m no expert at fixing bikes or knowing how to do everything mechanically but I know enough to get by. However, short of carrying the spare parts with you in case something goes wrong you’re not fixing an electronic group set at the side of the road!

Each to their own though. If you have a selection of bikes and are happy to run the risks with your top end road bike then feel free to give it a go. Find out what clearance you’ve got on your frame, pop some suitable tyres on there, strap your bags on and away you go!

Does all of the above sound a bit bitter? Does it sound like I’m saying you shouldn’t ride your fancy road bike on a Bikepacking trip? If it does I apologise. I’m just jealous!

Pros:

  • Super light, super stiff, beautiful Di2 gearing. 
  • You’re going to eat up the miles if you have road riding on your route.
  • Great disc brake stopping power just like the other bikes. 
  • Looks great!

Cons:

  • You’re going to get rattled around on that stiff frame when the terrain gets rough. 
  • Any mechanical issue relating to the electronic components could cause you real issues.
  • Unless you tape up your frame the bags will most likely leave rub marks damaging the aesthetic look.
  • It has the potential to make your bike more of a target for thieves in busy areas.
  • The thought of damaging the bike would weigh heavy on my mind during the trip.
It will probably do the job brilliantly. Too risky for me!

Obviously this is just my 2 pence worth. I’m sure there’s people reading this who have fat bikes, single speed bikes, tricycles, E-bikes, or some other sort of wheeled pedalling machine that they take Bikepacking and that’s great. However, I don’t want to talk about what I don’t know or haven’t experienced. If this blog is to provide any sort of help or guidance I feel it needs to be honest advice based on real world application and experiences. 

So there we have it, my pros and cons for three different types of bikes. This is by no means a definitive list but I hope that it does cover the main types of bikes that people might consider taking Bikepacking.

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